Of all the directors working in Hollywood today, Wes Anderson has the surest grip on his material. Every frame bears his unmistakeable stamp; every costume, every carpet and cushion, every trundling tracking shot, every expression and intonation.
He gives you the impression he makes movies solely to titillate his personal artistic proclivities; that they happen to chime with his legion of fans is merely a happy coincidence. His directing style bears as much resemblance to puppetry – especially of the creaky eastern European variety – as it does to the output of his contemporaries. His sets are a giant toy box peopled by characters who are at once implausible caricatures and unmistakably human.
Ralph Fiennes is the star of The Grand Budapest Hotel, playing the irascible concierge Monsieur Gustave. He is the mould from which other lesser concierges are made, albeit one who harbours a predilection for servicing the more… intimate needs of his elderly female clientele. Fiennes plays him with two parts Noel Coward to one part James Stevens (from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day), combining an unflappable professionalism with an urbane high-camp.
When one of Gustave’s favourites, Madame D (Tilda Swinton, almost unrecognisable under layers of wrinkly prosthetics), dies in mysterious circumstances, he travels to her estate in the hope of being left “a little something”, only to discover he has been bequeathed “Boy with Apple”, a wilfully hideous renaissance painting of immeasurable worth. Her son and apparent heir Dmitri, a wonderfully malign Adrien Brody, is less than pleased and sends his terrifying enforcer Jopling (Willem Dafoe, also on brilliant form) to make the problem disappear.
Anderson has never been troubled with a dearth of casting options but The Grand Budapest Hotel is made up of an embarrassment of riches, trumping all of his previous movies: “I’ll take your Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Edward Norton, and raise you Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson…”
The sprawling ensemble cast means it lacks some of the emotional connection of, say, Moonrise Kingdom, and it’s a slicker affair than the DIY garage-indie of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But the overall effect is every bit as poignant and adorable as anything in his canon.
Zubrowka, the mountainous pre-Second World War east European town where the hotel is located, is a tense, often violent place. But Anderson’s world is so lovingly crafted that checking into the Grand Budapest hotel is nothing short of a joy.
First published in City A.M.